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Slumdog Millionaire

by Yoda
posted on 1/31/09
Strip away the language, culture, and ethnicity of its characters, and Slumdog Millionaire could have been written by Charles Dickens. It shows us extreme poverty and tribulation, but focuses not on the misery of its characters, but what they take away from it. They treat their hardships as mere facts of life. How can you curse your lot in life when you so rarely glimpse anything better? How do you reach for something you cannot see?

Slumdog Millionaire is about a young Indian man named Jamal, played by three different actors at different points in his life. They are, in descending order of age: Dev Patel, Tanay Chheda, and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar. Jamal finds himself competing on his country's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He makes a run at the grand prize by answering a series of increasingly obscure questions. His run is so improbable given his background that it arouses suspicion, and he is interrogated by a local police inspector who tries to determine whether or not he's cheating.

The inspector demands to know how he happened to know each answer, and Jamal recounts his experiences growing up in a slum with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) and his friend Latika (Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Rubiana Ali). Question by question, Jamal produces one terrible memory after another from his childhood, each of which has seared an eclectic piece of information into his mind. As the coincidences start to pile up, both Jamal and the inspector begin to realize that something larger than either of them is at work.

If one thing about Slumdog Millionaire stands out above any other, it is the way that the film finds beauty in unlikely places. Though Jamal and Salim live in a slum, director Danny Boyle manages to bring a sense of energy and vibrance to their home thanks in no small part to many vivid colors and two Academy Award-nominated original songs. The slum is a quilt-like mash of squalor, color, and chaos, and Boyle allows us to take it all in with some breathtaking aerial views.

The film is set in several points in Jamal's life, and jumps between them to create revelations and tension that wouldn't exist chronologically. Watching the characters grow and change, and seeing how their past experiences inform their actions in the present, lends every scene a heightened sense of importance. We're made to walk in the shoes of people who don't have any, which gives us a stake in how their stories turn out.

Most films that depict so much tribulation would be draining, but Slumdog Millionaire moves along at a brisk, energizing pace. The characters have little time to dwell on the things that have befallen them, and the result is a film that sounds depressing on paper, but leaps from the screen.

Like most great films, no amount of description can convey the feelings it invokes. Like the lives of the people it depicts, it needs to be experienced to be completely understood. At its bottom, this is a tale about how our suffering is as much a part of who we are as our successes, and the rewards of having faith even when the former overwhelms the latter.